Cover image: Middle East

Middle East

The Middle East is known as ‘the cradle of civilisation’, a part of the world rich in culture and ancient history. But sadly these days it is more often known as a region riven by conflict and war. It’s impossible in just one article to do more than skim the surface of this region’s complexity. However, we hope to give teachers some pointers and ideas for exploring the region in class and supporting students' learning. Before delving into issues that may elicit strong opinions or cause upset, you might first want to read through our articles Ten critical questions and Answering international development questions from primary pupils, which look at different ways to approach controversial or difficult topics. Literature set in the Middle East can help children first understand the rich culture and landscape within the area. Some of the bigger questions about conflict in the Middle East could be explored through a Philosophy for Children (P4C) enquiry. This helps children to develop their own questions around the region, and encourages group enquiry. A stimlus could be something as simple as a (child appropriate) news clip or a several images. Let children consider their 'wonders' related to the stimulus, for example, 'I wonder if those children go to school'. These 'wonders' can then form the basis of an enquiry or discussion.

What subjects does this fit into?

  • Geography: KS3 Locational knowledge
  • History:
    • KS2 Early civilizations eg: Ancient Sumer, Ancient Egypt
    • KS2 Non-European society, eg: early Islamic civilization, including a study of Baghdad c. AD 900
    • KS3 The First World War and the Peace Settlement
  • RE / RS: The history of religions; exploring controversial religious issues in the modern world.

Why is it called the ‘Middle East’?

The term originates from how British and European colonialists described the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – the ‘Near East’ being the Balkans, Turkey and Egypt, and the ‘Far East’ being South East Asia, China, Japan and Korea; the ‘Middle East’ was in between.

Which countries make up the Middle East?

There’s no agreed definition, and the number of countries generally considered part of this region has grown since the early 20th century when the Middle East consisted of the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf and Persia (Iran). The map we've used at the top of this page is from The State of the Middle East Atlas published by New Internationalist (a really useful resource, by the way). It shows a ‘Middle East’ that extends from Iran all the way westwards to the Atlantic coast of Africa, bringing in countries that share similar culture, politics and challenges. According to The State of the Middle East Atlas: “The reason why there’s no universally agreed definition of the region is that the very concept of the Middle East is political. In defining it, judgements are made about some of the key issues that preoccupy it and the key factors that influence it.” [caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]Rethinking Schools map image Rethinking Schools map - click to open the activity[/caption] Starter Activity: Try out this Rethinking Schools map game. You have to drag each country name onto the right place on the map (quite hard for many teachers to do, let alone students!) The map includes some countries not generally considered to be ‘Middle East’ (and was created before the birth of South Sudan) but it can help students find out more about the region and reflect on the connections between these countries. They could then research more information about individual countries, or view them in closer detail by using Google Maps or Google Earth.

Exploring the region's history and culture

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="200"]Cleopatra's needle, London, flickr photo by Jack Zalium Cleopatra's needle, London[/caption] The Khan Academy has two useful background reading sections on early history and culture, suitable for older students: The cradle of civilization and Art of the ancient Mediterranean. The Zipang website is a nice resource about Mesopotamia which includes teachers' packs (for ages 7 to 11) on Ancient Sumer and the Assyrian Empire. The British Museum website also has resources on Ancient Mesopotamia and a section on the Middle East and Islamic World for ages 7 to 11 and 12 to 16. PBS Global Connections - Middle East has a historical timeline suitable for secondary students, which can be explored thematically and via cross-cutting 'big questions'. BBC News: Why border lines drawn with a ruler in WW1 still rock the Middle East explores how the region was divided up in 1919. BBC Bitesize class clips: KS3 History - The Middle East has short film clips exploring more recent history since the Suez crisis in 1956. The British Council has a useful education pack for Key Stages 2 and 3 (ages 7 to 14): Arabic Language and Culture Teaching idea: ask students to research what influence Middle Eastern culture has had on Europe and/or the UK. Here are a couple more websites that can help with their research:

  • 1001 Inventions - scientific and cultural achievements from Muslim Civilisation from the 7th century onwards.
  • Challenging Islamophobia - online exhibition exploring how Islam has influenced Britain over the ages.

Exploring the reasons for conflict

The ASIDE blog's article Explainer Videos: History, Religion, And Conflict brings together four short film clips which explore the reasons behind some of the conflicts in the region. BBC News has a Timeline exploring the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Also an extensive feature: Syria: The story of the conflict. [caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]New Internationalist Syria conflict infographic New Internationalist Syria conflict infographic[/caption] New Internationalist: Syria's Conflict: the facts (pictured here) is a useful 'zoomable infograph', and Easier English Wiki has created a quiz based on these facts. Vox: Syria's war: Who is fighting and why? (YouTube clip) Vox: 40 maps that explain the Middle East is an amazing set of very diverse maps which explain all sorts of things: history, culture, ethnicities, resources, and the impact that conflict has had on the region. CAABU, the Council for Arab British Understanding, has a range of online lesson plans on the themes of Arabs, Islam and Stereotypes and Israel and Palestine. There are also teaching resources on the I Am Syria website; it is a non-profit campaign to educate the world about the Syrian conflict. The resources are mainly aimed at US schools but could also be used in the UK. Symbolia: Syria's Climate Conflict takes a graphic novel/comic approach to exploring whether the civil war in Syria was sparked by climate change / drought. This is also explored in a Guardian article: Global warming contributed to Syria's 2011 uprising, scientists claim.

The impact of conflict

British Red Cross: Syrian conflict: Life in a war zone is a Key Stage 3 resource exploring what it might be like to live in a conflict zone. Also Syrian refugee choices and Emotional support in a crisis. Al Jazeera: Life on hold explores the difficulties faced by Syrian refugees in Lebanon. And in this short film clip a 13-year-old boy dreams of returning to Syria - perhaps you could use this to explore children's rights. BBC News: Syrian Journey - choose your own escape route - interactive which shows the various choices confronting refugees. There is also a useful feature on a Save the Children project enabling child refugees to create animations of their life stories. Facing History: Echoes of the Past: The Current Refugee Crisis in Europe - asks 'What is our responsibility to refugees fleeing from war and genocide?' and compares the current situation with the situation just before World War II. You could also get further information and ideas from our previous articles:

If you have further suggestions for useful links and teaching ideas please let us know in the comments box below. The map image at the top of the page is taken from the cover of The State of the Middle East Atlas, published by New Internationalist, Image Copyright Myriad Editions. Cleopatra's needle photo by Jack Zallium on, used under a Creative Commons licence.